Produce Professionals…. A Dying Breed?

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Facing the challenges of the pandemic has triggered many of us to review what has happened and where the industry is going. There is a disturbing trend developing that could ultimately threaten the well-being of the produce industry, especially in the retail segment. This disturbing trend is a loss of industry knowledge and experience among produce personnel. This is particularly concerning as it relates to the retail segment, how it is performing and where it is headed in the future.

Upper management has always considered the “special nature” of produce to be something that exists only in the minds of produce personnel and is not something of importance in terms of operational efficiencies. Given that few executives in upper management have a non-perishable background, this attitude is not surprising and proves as we have always believed, when it pertains to produce, “they just don’t get it!”

The produce industry has been well served through the years by the development of the knowledge, skills and experience of those who were working within its various segments. In terms of the retail aspect of the business, these skills are vital to the continued success of the “selling” segment of our industry. Over the past few years, we have observed a decline in the quality of personnel throughout the retail segment of the industry. This is not to say the people working in the industry are not top-notch people, but they lack key aspects of what it means to exist, operate and be successful in the produce world.

To illustrate this point, here are two major areas of retail produce that seem to suffer from a lack of knowledge, experience and skills that pose a danger to the continued success of our produce operations.

There are two major areas of retail produce that seem to suffer from a lack of knowledge, experience and skills that pose a danger to the continued success of our produce operations.

The first area to explore is that of the actual operations within the retail store. Throughout the “Renaissance” period of the produce industry in the ’80s and ’90s, virtually all retailers were engaged in training their in-store personnel on how to best operate their produce departments. This included skills such as merchandising, signing, display techniques, sampling strategies, variety and selection, and commodity grouping. Included in the training was the knowledge of how to handle the product, including temperature needs of each item, handling requirements, ripening techniques and proper storage. Most progressive retailers included adding customer service skills, product knowledge and selling skills.

This combination of training, mentoring, and practical application provided produce personnel with the experience and confidence needed to truly become a “Produce Professional.”

Unfortunately, it seems in the industry’s present state, these training areas are being neglected in favor of data-driven, task-oriented operational strategies. This type of focus and lack of professionalism threatens to veer from the successful formula of “freshness” to one of grocery style “sterile” marketing.

The second area to explore in terms of retailing is the supply aspect of the operation. This would cover all of those who are involved in procuring quality product and supplying it to the stores in a timely manner. Many of the people in this area began in the stores and then moved upward to buying positions, many of which were located in key production areas throughout the country. These buyers were trained in the various grades and standards of the products and how to identify the best quality being produced within the area.

Many of these organizations transferred young buyers several times during their early careers to expose them to as many producing areas and methods of operation as possible to help season them and provide them with a keen knowledge of production. Many buyers lived in the areas where they were buying so they understood the effects of weather, water and time on the products they were responsible for procuring.

Many of them went on to have successful careers managing different buying operations and successfully supplying quality produce to their organizations. Some of them moved on to work within the warehouse and transportation segment where they concentrated on establishing consistent supply channels to guarantee the stores availability of fresh, quality produce.

Part of their training was the ability to gain knowledge from the various producing areas and process that information to plan purchases to take advantage of seasonal peaks and quality availability throughout all of the industry. This effort produced personnel that could truly be called “Produce Professionals,” which now seem to be in decline and are being replaced by data-driven category management, and expedient cost-cutting technology.

This is not a lament and wish for a return to a bygone era, but simply a reminder of the key building blocks that built our industry. We must always remember where we came from and not stray too far from the basic premise that the success of any produce operation is the delivery of the freshest, best quality produce that represents the best possible value to the consumer. Perhaps by examining our operations, we can return to the successful formula that helped to develop “Produce Professionals” and bring them back from the brink of extinction.

Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry, with most of that time spent in retail. He worked in every aspect of the industry, from “field-to-fork” in both the conventional and organic arenas. Harris is presently consulting. Comments can be directed to [email protected]